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* Walter Gieseking(5th Nov. 1895~26th Oct. 1956)

[ I want to listen the beautiful sound from my piano ]

3 Walter Gieseking(photo ; Fayer, Wien)

   Though EMI is without doubt the representative record company from the 1900s to 1960s, sometimes I am angry when EMI's piano recordings, especially in 1950s. So bad sounds with so great pianists! I read an article that an ex-EMI staff confessed in a book, "Most of the EMI's recordings were done by the old machines used from 78s era in 1950s. Therefore, in the 1950s, the recording quality of EMI was something to be desired." (something... or much?)
   Considering this, naturally, EMI's piano recordings are not good compared to the recording year(tone color of piano is difficult to catch, really!). Only in my personal opinion, even the piano recordings in 1930s by EMI are generally better than in 1950s, only judging from piano tone (of course, if neglecting the surface noises). Due to such an old machines, it should perhaps be Walter Gieseking's recordings that tend to be most undervalued. His '
fantastic tone like crystals' does not exist in most of his EMI records.

   Walter Gieseking was born at Lyon, France. However, both of his parents are German, and his nationality also Germany. At young age his lesson was given to him by mother. Formal lesson was began after moving Hannover where was mother's homeland. At the municipal conservatory, he was tutored by Karl Leimer, who was very famous for his systematic pedagogy. Even before Hannover times, he was said to play Schumann's Fantasy publicly, but the beginning of the formal lesson at 16-year-old is more or less late compared to other famous pianists. However, only five years later he debuted at Hannover by Liszt's Concerto No.1 and toured Europe after WWI. His first roll recording was in 1922 and first American trip begun on 22nd Feb. 1922 gave him international fame. Paris debut was on 1928. Especially his performances of the French impressionists became famous soon, and even the criticizers against him acclaimed his Debussy and Ravel unanimously.
   Peoples want to know why he did not exile from Nazi regime. Though he was at a distance from voluntary Nazi claim, he was banned at podium to early 1948 and had to cancel the American tour at 1949 season because of the demonstration of the American veterans. He was able to tour USA only in 1953, and on the spring of 1956 toured again for two month. Most of the critics were for him in this last American tour.
   Because his ability of memorizing piano score was incredibily great, his concert schedule was such a busy one that he should move from here to there always. It was natural that he should have himself enrolled to traffic accident two times. The first seemed to be not serious, but the later one in 1955 was so big that he lost his wife on the spot and that he was misreported to be killed by a German paper. They said he would not be able to play again, but luckily he recovered perfectly to the next year and was able to tour America again at spring. However, (due to the aftereffects of such a busy schedule?) on October in a session of Beethoven's complete sonatas in EMI's no.3 studio at Abbey Road, he fell by severe stomachache. Though emergently operated, he passed away on 26th October. The cause of death was acute pancreatitis(this disease occurs when the enzimes of pancreas digest pancreas itself. It is far more danger than we can imagine. Several thousands die of this a year in USA). His last session was held on 17~22nd October, in which 10 Beethoven's sonatas and Chopin's Barcarolle and Berceuse were recorded.   

   If you'd like to know how Gieseking thought about music, Modernes Klavierspiel(Modern piano playing) should be the best window. It was written by him and his teacher Karl Leimer, of which preface was written by Gieseking. He said "I am unconditionally loyal to the method of Leimer, though twelve years have passed since I learned." The contents of this book can be considered as his route of learning.
   Leimer stresses 'intense training of ear' in this book, which includes the training of listening the playing of one's own - breeding the ability of the objective decision of rhythm, tone color, and tempi(and etc.) of his own performances. Exquisite and through nuances were one of his characteristic factor, which was based on his trained ear. Leimer said in this book "Gieseking's Debussy and Ravel are unanimously acclaimed as the world-best by critics all over the world,
which results from the skillful mastering of all kinds of touch and nuances".
Moreover, it is mentioned to memorize score by concentration and to expand the repertoire, which Gieseking's memorizing ability and vast repertoire result from. Bartok and Heinrich Neuhaus (teacher of Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels) are said to have considerable memorizing ability of score, but I guess Gieseking was next to no other contemporaries. An episode: Concert at evening - a score of a newly composed work was received - reading it in train - playing the work next evening by memorizing! It was said that he did not practice too much, which I can understand enough considering his transcendent technique and memorizing ability. It is interesting that we can find mistakes when listening his record with reading scores. Sometimes they are not mere mistouch but wrong memorizing; it was legendary, but not '100% perfect'.

  As you can imagine his style from above, his music can be abbreviated as 'pure, simple and precise style, keen insight, and full spectrum of nuances'. Since one of his main purpose of playing was to exactly reconstruct a score, arbitrarily exaggeration cannot be found. But his tone color was beyond imagination - audiences and critics unanimously said his tone color was superior to any other pianist in subtleness and exquisiteness in Gieseking's peak times(1920~30s) - really transparent and beautiful. Mozart's lieder(1955 stereo) is one of the most renowned recordings of Schwarzkopf and him, in which the piano sound is very round, soft, and individual in spite that he did not use the right pedal much. It is said that he never selected the piano maker in concert(very often. Horowitz conveyed his Steinway piano for any concerts), which is impossible unless he was totally confident in his technique and touch.
  Dean Elder, who was apprentice of Gieseking, contributed a chapter named 'Gieseking's Debussy and Ravel performances' to Joseph Banowetz's very good book The pianist's guide to pedaling. He said about Gieseking's tone "
Transparent, not percussive, with very large dynamic range". He told Gieseking to say "I should listen the beautiful sound from my piano", which I really agree to if it was said by Gieseking. His Ravel and Debussy will be not the only way but very refined one in his way really. Dean Elder explains Gieseking's intention comparing to the records, which is very precious archive as it is nearly unprecedented that the intention of such a great virtuoso remains with his record and explanation. The chapter explains why Gieseking's pedalings are so long compared to his contemporaris in records.

   Gieseking's recordings are many though considering the era, but as I said above, unfortunately there are not many that capture his tone well. Of course EMI should be blamed, contracted with him in tape era; moreover EMI introduced the stereo technique from 1953~4, but most of Gieseking's 1955~6 recordings exist only by monaural. After 1955, Decca and RCA switched to stereo in the most sessions; EMI is uncomparable to them. Even Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who was unquestionably one of the representative artist of EMI and wife of the leader of EMI's sessions, once complained about the sluggish behavior of EMI(Walter Legge hated stereo). More bad thing is irregular sound qualities of his recordings; Mozart's lied with Schwarzkopf(1955, stereo), Mendelssohn's Songs without words(1956, monaural), and Schubert's Impromptus(1955, monaural) each has pretty different sound quality. Mendelssohn was the latest recording but instable sound(EMI international's references release has better sound than Japanese HS-2088 issue, but I can listen a trace of the problem at the former). These trend are also found at Debussy and Ravel recordings.
   In spite of these problems, his Debussy and Ravel set are worth while to being listened. Debussy was recorded in 1953~55, and Ravel in 1954. Both have relatively a bit fast tempo, and showed his individual sonority well - if we should imagine it to some extent! Judging from my Japanese old release of Debussy, it has considerably unsatisfactory sound quality compared to Casadesus' Debussy by USA Columbia. Ravel set is a bit better, as far as I can say by listening my Pathe References LP since the international CD was released only on 2001. These two sets will show 'the excessiveness' of the most new recordings available. Philips's 20th century pianist series release(now unavailable) included Debussy and Ravel recorded in 1930s, and I want to listen the tone color of his peak time.
   He was also famous as a specialist of Mozart. His complete set of Mozart are often recommended but many of my musical friends say it is NOT the best at the present time as far as Pires's(DG) are in catalog, moreover due to sound quality and 8CDs by med-price! I'd like to recommend Lieder with Schwarzkopf(1955 stereo). Originally 17 works were recorded but all of the international issues 16 works without K.518 (I guess the reason is that K.518 has inferior sound quality to others). It is one of the best sound quality in his records. However, two drawbacks of this record are that Schwarzkopf's technique is excessive(! ^^) and that the works themselves are not so better than those after Schubert's. Concertos with Rosbaud and Karajan are Nos. 20,23~25, and quintet with Philharmonia winds ensemble(perhaps now unavailable). I think concertos are not with first recommendable priority because there are many recordings with good sound and performance by others.
   The three composers are worth while to being recommended af first. I have heard 5 sonatas of Beethoven, but they are not universal in the point of tempo(too fast!). Other sonatas by radio recordings were released by Tahra, including 27 works. Concerto Nos. 4 and 5 did two times at EMI studio(with Karajan monaural and Galliera stereo), and wartime stereo recording with Rother by German tape technique released by Music & Arts. Other composer's works are more eminent than Beethoven. Mendelssohn's Song without words and Grieg's Lyric pieces (though sound quality is problematic) are one of the best seller, released by References series and now available. With Karajan and Philharmonia, Schumann, Grieg, and Franck's work were left. Schubert's Impromptus is very good. Moment musicaux, 3 pieces, Brahms' pieces, and Schumann's Carnaval and Kinderscenen was recorded, but most of them are not available by international version(available only by Japanese).

   When I am listening Gieseking's record, it reminds me of a sentence in the Leimer's book. "When I hear my student playing, I think he(or she) feels same to me about the work." Leimer's method of teaching is very modern and rational even from the present viewpoint, but I loathe such a loss of the individuality in music. How different he was from Leschetizky - all of his students had developed personalized different styles - and Neuhaus, whose style was once called 'generous indifference' to his students(of course from his student's view. Neuhaus was far from 'indifference' to his students. Otherwise, Richter would not appreciate him)!  I dare to guess Leimer could not bring up a pianist greater than Gieseking. And, I do want to give a tribute to him who had ability that can not be absorbed but absorb Leimer's method as his style.

4 Gieseking, Philips Great Pianists Series I ; from Amazon

Photo Gallery

  5 at La Scala, Milano, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf  5 In practising
  5 Gieseking's hands(1)   5 Gieseking's hands(2)


  1. R.W.Krause's Walter Gieseking page ; Brief discography
  2. Great Pianists page ; Short commentary about Gieseking's characteristics
  3. A review of Schumann/Debussy/Ravel ; Released by BBC Classics
  4. Photo from ; Ravel's complete works(EMI Références LP C151-43093/4), Mendelssohn/Grieg(EMI CHS 5 66775 2), Mozart lieder(EMI Références LP 1015781)
  5. Gieseking's life ; liner note of 'The Art of Walter Gieseking', Toshiba-EMI TOCE 8131~36(6 CD set)
  6. Joseph Banowetz, The pianist's guide to pedaling, Indiana University Publishing, 1985 (Korean Translation; Eumak Choonchoo)

(c) 2000~ , Youngrok LEE ; Link free, but please get my approval before you reuse, copy, or quote this materials.

Music Home Photo Gallery Discography Jacket Images Korean

Created ; 11th Mar. 2006
(Korean version created ; 1st Oct. 2000)